State budgets are more than ledgers of numbers and dollar signs. And they’re much more than operating expenses and utilities. They are the policy agendas and plans for a state’s future, showing what a state prioritizes and what it hopes to be. They explain how states view everything from economic development to environmental conservation to education. And they chart a course toward continued improvement for their citizens and their state. Through it, we have the opportunity to set a visionary course for public education in Rhode Island and to well support our 142,000 public school students and the educators who guide them. To do this, our state’s education budget must be transparent, predictable, equitable, and, most importantly, student-centered.
At the end of June, the General Assembly voted on our own state budget—allowing us insight into our state’s values and vision across sectors, but especially for our state’s most important resource: our students. There is much in the budget that adheres to these core principles. It sends the message that Rhode Island strives toward setting a high bar for its students by offering increased access to early-college courses and universal free access to the SAT and PSAT exams. It focuses on starting earlier by expanding access to pre-kindergarten opportunities for our youngest learners. And it acknowledges our changing economy and the need to prepare our students for computer-based jobs of the future through an investment in computer science and the P-TECH program.
But there also remains some muddiness and unpredictability in our new state education budget.
Take the following two examples:
ELL predictability: Over just the past ten years, our ELL population has increased from 4.9 percent to 7.3 percent of the total student population. That’s a bump of almost 3,000 additional ELL students. Rhode Island’s budget recognizes the unique needs of English-language learners. But it falls short of ensuring those funds for the future. The budget only funds a one-year pilot program, making it harder for districts to commit meaningful investments for these students and implementing supports beyond one year of funding.
Public charter-funding transparency and equitability: As the needs of our students shift, we must reimagine the best learning options for our students. One way we can do this is through the smart and continued development of a strong public charter sector in Rhode Island. But for these different school models to best help their students thrive, they must be funded as other public school students are funded. The budget makes significant cuts to public charter schools and moves our formula toward one that is confusing, unpredictable, and complicated to administer or track. These changes will make annual budget planning uncertain and tenuous for schools across the board and this public charter school provision signals that Rhode Island wishes to weaken the state’s public charter sector—thus weakening parents’ and students’ public school choice.
Still, even with these issues, we are proud of the innovative education initiatives included in the FY17 budget. They reflect a strong and forward-looking vision for Rhode Island’s education that we need as a state and adheres to the core principles of a smart and strong education budget: transparency, predictability, equity and putting students at the center. For more information on what was included in the budget, check out our budget summary here, share with your networks, then let us know what you hope to see in next year’s budget. Your voice can be a powerful policy lever for Rhode Island’s kids!